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Turning Sheep into Tigers: State Securitization of Islam, Societal Insecurity and Conflict in Xinjiang, China

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Jo Smith Finley


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In October 2013, a sports utility vehicle ploughed through a crowd at China’s Tian’anmen Square and caught fire, killing the three occupants and two tourists. Some days later, Chinese authorities declared the incident to have been the nation’s first major suicide attack, perpetrated by separatist ‘militants’ from Xinjiang (Zhang 2013). Then, in March 2014, the state reported that eight ‘violent terrorists’ from Xinjiang had launched a premeditated knife attack at Kunming rail station in Yunnan, in which 29 people were killed and 140 injured (BBC 2014). While these incidents represented the first time that inter-ethnic conflict had spilled out of Xinjiang into China proper, the Uyghur heartland itself witnessed a series of violent incidents between 2012 and 2015; these were mostly spontaneous, but some had apparently been planned in advance. They took place against the backdrop of China’s ongoing crackdown on the ‘3 Evils’ (separatism, extremism, terrorism) in the region, and the state’s decision from 2012 to securitize religious practice. This chapter reflects on that wave of violence as a symptom of Uyghurs’ growing sense of ‘societal insecurity’. Victims of socio-economic marginalization and increasingly denied the freedom to practise their mother tongue and religion, some individuals came to feel they had nothing else left to lose. I show how the state’s criminalization of everyday religious practice, intrusive religious policing and state penetration of 'pure' Uyghur spaces, led to the most intense spate of retaliatory attacks on the state and state agents (including Han civilians, viewed as a proxy for the state) seen in Xinjiang since 1949. The state in turn has used this spate of violence as an excuse to justify its current campaign to ‘disappear’ and intern Uyghur Muslims on an unprecedented scale.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Smith Finley J

Editor(s): Iulia Lumina

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: The Politics of Muslim Identities in Asia

Year: 2021

Print publication date: 01/11/2021

Online publication date: 01/11/2021

Acceptance date: 02/06/2019

Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

Place Published: Edinburgh


Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781474466837


Link to this publication